Will ex-Japan PM Abe be Judged as a Survivor that Drifted with the Tides?

19.09.20 Publication:

Historians are divided by one quite fundamental debate. One school, who believe in what is
often known as “the great man theory of history” holds that some forceful individual
leaders can and do have a transformative effect. The opposing school believe that such
leaders simply alter timings, speeds and the superficial texture of change, but cannot really
change the fundamental direction, because that is set by underlying more fundamental
forces such as climate, technology, demography and geopolitics.

This debate is relevant to a question of great current importance in and for Japan:
how should we judge Shinzo Abe, now that he has retired, shortly after setting the record as
the country’s longest-serving prime minister? Has he altered Japan’s direction and
transformed its position, politically, diplomatically, socially or economically? Or will history
see him largely as a leader who was like a boat carried along by the tides, making a short-
term difference to the boat’s stability, speed and comfort but did not alter its destination in
any significant or lasting way?

By answering this question about Mr Abe we do not need to take sides in the
historians’ debate: we just need to decide which in his total of nearly nine years in office will
look stronger to future historians, the tides or the man. My view is that they will choose the
tides. For what strikes me about many of the major developments that are attributed to the
Abe era is that most can be traced back to initiatives that were begun by previous prime
ministers. For example, he left the prime minister’s office and its powers stronger than he
found them in 2012, and much stronger than in his first term in 2006-07, but this process of
building up prime ministerial power began at least as far back as Prime Minister Hashimoto
in 1996-98, and arguably even earlier.

Similarly, many now cite the centralisation of control over top bureaucratic
appointments as an Abe achievement, which it is, except that the effort had been begun
under the Democratic Party of Japan in 2009-12. Probably the real innovation amid this
centralisation of control was his administration’s strong efforts to quieten down criticism in
the media – although even that had also been seen in earlier times, albeit to a lesser extent.

Many commentators point to Abe’s diplomatic initiatives as having yielded
important changes to Japan’s profile internationally, its network of friends and its ability to
operate autonomously from the United States. That is also true, but many of the individual
features of this progress also date back to previous prime ministers. Japan’s closer
relationship with India was begun at least as far back as Prime Minister Mori in 2000-01, and
was widely noted under his successor Prime Minister Koizumi too. It is a similar story with
Japan’s closer relationship with Australia and indeed with the United Kingdom. Language
about championing democracy and freedom all the way from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific
dates back a similarly long time. So do efforts to gain more freedom of manoeuvre for the
Self-Defence Forces.

Arguably only the specific achievement of the Comprehensive and Progressive
Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership can be laid firmly and clearly at Abe’s door, and
that definitely significant achievement occurred chiefly because President Donald Trump
withdrew America from the TPP, creating a vacuum that risked destroying diplomatic and                                        commercial gains. Prime Minister Abe deserves credit for stepping in with other nations to
rescue the TPP, but that does not make him a radical, transformative figure.

Domestically, too, the Abe legacy will mainly be seen as one of making marginal,
often valuable, reforms but not of a transformative sort that historians will choose to
highlight. He restored political control over the Bank of Japan, reversing the central bank’s
move to independence during the 1990s; he stepped up reforms of corporate governance;
he accelerated public spending on child-care facilities; he legislated for equal pay for equal
work between full-time, regular workers and part-time, non-regular ones; he sought to set
limits, albeit high ones, on workers’ overtime hours.

Yet despite a lot of political noise about “Abenomics” and its “three arrows” there
was no noticeable impact on the long-term trend of Japan’s economic growth, nor on its
rate of productivity improvement, nor its birth rate. Modest rates of economic growth, with
weak household consumption, nearly 40% of workers in non-regular contracts and high
levels of relative poverty, were his inheritance and will now be the inheritance of his
successor. This strategy, which is essentially a cheap-labour model, with depressed wage
growth and one of the lowest official minimum wages in the developed world, was begun by
governments in the late 1990s, under pressure from big corporations, and has been
maintained by all successors including the Abe administration.

This analysis may seem rather negative. It isn’t meant to be: rather, my argument is
that the Abe administration was simply normal, by comparison with other Liberal
Democratic Party-led governments, in every respect except one: the length of time Mr Abe
stayed in office.

It is that longevity in office that marks Mr Abe out: he accumulated many small but
useful pieces of progress for his country and became well-known and respected globally
largely by virtue of being prime minister for such an unusually long time. His great
achievement was to survive, politically. But given that he was in office for so long and won
so many elections, the catalogue of his reforms is quite disappointing.

It may well be that historians will attribute that disappointing reform record not to
any particular shortcomings of Mr Abe as a leader but rather to the constraints he, his
office, his party and Japan itself have been subject to. Those constraints need to be borne in
mind as we ask ourselves now what we should expect from his successor, Yoshihide Suga.

Since Mr Suga was Mr Abe’s right-hand man as Chief Cabinet Secretary ever since
December 2012, it would be strange to expect any radical change in the new government’s
policies. There will, no doubt, be differences of emphasis and initially we will see new
energy. But neither in domestic nor foreign affairs is there likely to be any sort of
transformation: the long-term tides that Prime Minister Abe sailed upon will now be sailed
upon by Prime Minister Suga.

That is why it feels right that the main focus of speculation has been less on his
policies and more on how long Mr Suga can hope to remain in office. Like Mr Abe before                                                      him, the main factor that determines his prominence and significance for historians will be
his ability not as a reformer but as a survivor.